by Steven Threndyle
Between the time the last gift is unwrapped on Christmas Day and the moment the first champagne bottle is popped on New Year’s Eve, many of us take stock of “the year that was” and set our sights on the year ahead.
In order not to feel regretful when this introspective period arrives at the same time next year, many of us undertake New Year’s resolutions—the vast majority of which we’ll fail at. (A cursory scan of news stories puts the ‘fail’ rate at somewhere between 80 and 92 percent.)
If there is one thing writers know, it’s rejection and failure, so the very nature of the writing life might lead us to avoid this exercise altogether. We wanted to find out, so we canvassed over a dozen writers working in a broad range of non-fiction genres; from travel writing to politics to science to energy to the environment. The questions were “Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution for your writing/journalism career, and how did it work out?” And, “Are you making any resolutions for 2018?”
The initial response was not encouraging, as travel writer Chuck Thompson wrote simply, “no, no, and no.” Perhaps the most pragmatic answer was provided by NYC-based writer Caitlin Kelly, who tersely replied “I don’t make them. Market forces are beyond my control.”
In a similarly negative vein, ski writer Tom Winter (his real name, don’t laugh) ventured, “Say no to working with shitty editors who request multiple rewrites and who want to change the focus of the story again and again and again. Say no to shitty projects that don’t pay. Finally, say no to the titles that always pay late.”
Winter’s advice is as unrealistic as it is honest. We’ve all been there in the past, and likely will be, again.
Freelance resolutions from years past
From there, however, sentiments turned more positive. Three writers owned up to making resolutions in the past that had jumpstarted their careers.
Coming off a sabbatical at CBC Radio, Jennifer Van Evra wrote, “Last year, I resolved to only take on freelance projects that I really wanted to do, and avoid taking offers just because they were offered or paid well. I said ‘no thank you’ more often and that freed up valuable time for the stories and projects I was most passionate about. Life is short.”
It should be noted, however, that Ms van Evra was also orchestrating a major home demo, er, reno project, which probably made freelancing pale in comparison.
Vancouver journalist Deborah Jones (co-founder of the online news journal Facts & Opinions) resolved one year to “take control of my career. I’d been very busy simply accepting whatever assignments walked in my door, without being very discerning. It was easy and lucrative, but I was stuck. I decided I had to intentionally go after the stories and publications that I found important. I met a goal of always having 50 queries out—most very tiny jobs, some major. The little stuff paid the bills. I lost money on most of the major work, but it was more than a labour of love because it paid off, in time: it led to editors at Time and the New York Times noticing my work and asking me to write for them.”
Indeed, “making it” south of the border is an oft-stated goal.
Ottawa-based cybersecurity writer Lorraine Murphy says, “One year, I spent the period between Christmas and New Year’s pitching stories to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and by the end of the year I had been published in Vanity Fair.”
Kimberley, BC, writer/adventurer/TV host Bruce Kirkby says, “It’s always a time of the year when I revisit where I’m at. My goals are modest and I try to nab a new publication that’s been on my radar and expand the type of stories I’m writing. Last year, I landed a story in the New York Times.” You can read that story, here.
Earlier in 2017, Victoria writer Tom Hawthorn authored The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country, (Douglas & McIntyre) a whimsical narrative of Canada’s Centennial year. He says, “I don’t make formal resolutions, but I do vow each year to write better, faster and for more money, and to get published into my favourite journals, like Granta, Smithsonian, Mad magazine and the New York Times.” These ambitions, for the most part, come to naught, he said. “At this I usually fail, though I have been published in the Washington Post.”
And what about resolutions for 2018?
Looking forward, several writers indicated a strong desire to get their book projects published.
They can take encouragement from Whistler based science writer Leslie Anthony, whose book The Aliens Among Us was published earlier in 2017 by Yale University Press. “The only resolution of any kind that I have ever made was in regard to my last book. I’d been pitching the idea (about the pervasive effect of invasive species) for a year or so, and couldn’t get any traction. I knew it was a great topic and that it would work in a popular format. So on New Year’s 2014, I basically resolved to get it published, and my agent and I worked through four different versions of a proposal before we finally got two different publishers interested—and signed a contract just under the wire before year’s end,” he said.
What many of Canada’s published A-list writers desire for 2018, however, is simply to be a well-paid and respected writer in their own country—a sentiment expressed best by award-winning journalist Hadani Ditmars, author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: (A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq), columnist for London’s Al Jadeed al Araby newspaper and contributor to the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, and Wallpaper.
“Our stories and our voices as Canadians are so distinct from our American and British colleagues, and I despair sometimes at our national failure to tell our own stories in our own publications. In 2018, I wish for more Canadian stories to be told and published by Canadians—but this is just a hope, not a resolution,” she said.
Her sentiments strike a chord with both Jones and Hawthorn, who have toiled in the trenches on a freelance basis at the Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, Chatelaine, and others.
Jones says, “This year? I resolve to try harder to not be depressed at what has happened to our journalism media ecosystem—and also to work harder on my plan B for my next career. Because in recent years journalism has become mostly a labour of love—and more discouraging even than the dire lack of money is the lack of public interest and support for our vital work.”
For Hawthorn, the true New Year’s resolution “needs not to come from me, as I have worked my ass off for nearly 40 years, but from the owners of outlets, who seem each year to find ways to pay less, publish less, or pay nothing in putting out their publications.”
Ditmars, whose next book Between Two Rivers will be released in 2018, invokes divine intervention in her quest to see long-form stories published. “Oh gods of narrative non-fiction above the 49th parallel – are you listening? Can you intervene please?”
It’s a pragmatic, if not pessimistic, note to end on, but freelance writing has never been for the faint of heart.
Best of luck with your New Year’s resolutions—for those courageous enough to make them—and Happy New Year.
Steven Threndyle is a Vancouver-based freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter at @.